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Leadership behaviors that diminish trust

Trust is hard to built and easy to lose -- and a business imperative for managers and leaders in any organization. Learn what common ways trust is won or lost, and what you can do about it.

5 min read


Leadership behaviors that diminish trust

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What takes a long time to build and a short time to destroy? Trust.

One of the greatest attributes a leader can acquire is the ability to build trust. Even though competency is part of the trust formula, trust isn’t gained by being the hardest worker, having the most seniority or being the most skilled at a particular job.

As Stephen Covey says, “The best way to build trust with another person is to make a commitment and keep it.” Building trust in the workplace requires leaders to be aware of behaviors that unintentionally diminish trust.

Here are four leadership behaviors that diminish trust and what to do instead.

Emotional instability

The very reason leaders avoid difficult conversations is because they don’t want to blow up, or don’t want to react to someone else’s defensiveness. In other words, they don’t trust themselves and don’t have the conflict capacity needed to manage the conflict.

The most difficult part of leading is managing strong emotions that come with added responsibilities. As a leader you have to make tough calls and have conversations you’d rather avoid. It’s easy to get stressed, take things personally and react emotionally. The other coping method is avoiding the situation completely.

Here are some behaviors that make your employees view you as emotionally unstable;

  • Defensiveness
  • Outbursts
  • Harsh emails

What to do: Become more intentional about your communication. When you feel angry is not the time to shoot off an email or initiate a conversation. Give yourself time to process the feelings. 

Instead of interpreting strong emotions as “the truth of a situation” or “it’s time to act” interpret strong feelings as an indicator that you need time to process the information. This gives you the space to create a strategy for how to address the issue.


When leaders make surprising decisions that involve employees, employees feel blindsided because there was no warning and no discussion. For example, when a leader decides someone isn’t the right fit for a position and replaces them without initiating a conversation to discuss.

Here are some other leadership behaviors that make employees feel blindsided:

  • Calling employees out in front of peers
  • Changing schedules, job descriptions, or responsibilities without warning
  • Firing them when they have only had great evaluations

What to do: Stop avoiding the conversation. If you’re rethinking a decision, talk to the employee about your concerns and your decision-making process.  Don’t go behind their back when they need to be included in the discussion.

If you think an upcoming decision is going to make the employee “lose face,” initiate a conversation first so that they aren’t embarrassed in front of their peers.


A leadership pattern that breaks trust is the behavior of appeasing. Appeasing is a form of people pleasing;  telling someone what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Appeasing is almost always viewed as promise breaking.

Here are some examples:

  • Saying, “I’ll get back to you” and then not scheduling the appointment
  • Agreeing when you disagree
  • Being “too nice” to argue

What to do: Make your word golden. Check yourself to see if you’re in the habit of being agreeable just to avoid the messiness of conflict.  Be willing to stay in conversations that are uncomfortable. It’s more important that your employees respect you than trying to be seen as their best friend.


Actions speak louder than words. No matter what a leader says they are committed to, it’s behavior that counts. When the talk doesn’t equal the walk employees know something’s off. When the rules constantly change, or when there’s a different standard for different people, employees lose faith in the integrity of their leader.

Other behaviors that show up as inconsistency or misalignment:

  • Not enforcing policies
  • Inconsistent follow-through
  • Everything is urgent

What to do: Review the policies and if you find inconsistencies make aligned changes and communicate the changes. Schedule regular communications for follow up and follow through. Stop acting like everything is an emergency. Clearly state the priorities, and if priorities shift, give an explanation. This discipline creates awareness and accountability.


As leaders we can’t always control the external environment, the culture, or decisions made outside our scope of control. What we can do is to build the awareness, character, and skills to increase trust with ourselves, our peers and our team members.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book “From Conflict to Courage” (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, or at

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